By any account, death by beheading is a horrible way to go. For Mary Stuart, it was an especially grisly affair, requiring three good whacks of the ax to decapitate a woman who, to her perpetual unhappiness, had as much a claim to England’s throne as her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. Like an entire season of peak television crammed into the space of two hours, “Mary Queen of Scots” spares us not only the butchery but also a great deal of the drama that might explain how the misfortunate monarch came to find her neck on the line.
And yet, the dream casting of peerless Irish-American actress Saoirse Ronan in the title role (her first time playing so far back from the 20th century) ought to be reason enough to justify another look at Mary’s torrid early years, when she returned from France following the death of her first husband and juggled a handful of suitors in an attempt to better position herself as a challenger to Elizabeth’s rule. In the past, Mary has been frequently depicted as a sexually liberated and/or promiscuous character, her three marriages — and the tragic fates that befell each of those spouses — serving as fertile material for hotblooded screenwriters to exploit.
By contrast, it’s as if director Josie Rourke — a veteran stage maven who takes to the big screen as if she were born for it — were determined to restore some dignity to one of history’s most misunderstood women (two, if you count Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth I), which is no small task at a moment in which audiences typically expect more sensational depictions of royal intrigue, such as The CW’s relatively soapy “Reign.” Rourke presents a woman who had little time for erotic frivolity, surrounded as she was by men determined to usurp her power.
In that respect, Mary shared many of the same frustrations as Elizabeth, who famously embraced her own virginity as a shield from those who might try to woo or wed her for their own advantage. Both were formidable characters, whether judged by today’s standards or those of the 16th century, and yet each new telling of their lives reveals more about the times in which it’s presented than whatever so-called fresh intelligence it claims to have concerning the era in question.
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With its strong emphasis on institutionalized sexism, Rourke’s film feels well suited to the #MeToo moment, contrasting Mary and Elizabeth’s far different strategies for maintaining what each believed to be her God-given legacy. They had diverging views of God as well: Elizabeth sided with Protestantism, while Mary returned from France following the death of her first husband to discover her Catholicism was violently opposed by the parties with closest ties to the throne.
Packed with plot twists and palace intrigue, the screenplay was adapted from British historian John Guy’s “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by political obsessive Beau Willimon, creator of “House of Cards,” a show whose conspiratorial backstabbing often feel better matched to ancient Rome — or Elizabethan England. Here, he’s free to examine how that dynamic might have created a state of constant paranoia for a pair of queens tasked with leading countries that stuffed their court with men — including in some cases blood relatives, like Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle) — who pose as advisers while seeking to undermine them.
Had the royal bloodline not pitted them against each other, Mary and Elizabeth might have been allies with much to commiserate about; instead they found themselves doubting one another’s intentions at every turn. In theory, that makes for enticing drama, although with Mary in various somber-looking Scottish castles (none of which make her second-place-queen title seem all that glamorous) and Elizabeth back in London, their long-distance rivalry poses a particular challenge to the filmmakers: How to create the sense of heated competition when their only means of communication is by letter or personal envoy? The result is something like one of those chess games played by mail, wherein each side has weeks to wait between moves, and it’s no wonder that Willimon took the liberty of inventing a pivotal scene in which the two come face-to-face.
Pushing back against her theatrical roots, Rourke — who, as artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse, has experimented with a handful of live cinema broadcasts of high-profile plays — reaches for all manner of creative cinematic solutions, some more successful than others. Rather than wasting time watching characters recite colorful dialogue on well-dressed stages, she pares back the chitchat and goes looking for opportunities to take her cameras outside. Just as regal in either context, Ronan comes across poised and assertive before her skeptical subjects — like a 21st-century CEO forced to prove herself to a chauvinist staff, or a woman director surrounded by a crew of macho guys.
The frequent views of unspoiled Scottish scenery work to keep things visually interesting but can make the Cliffs Notes history confusing for audiences struggling to keep the characters straight. When obliged to deal with indoor business, Rourke rejects standard coverage, alternating between mid-shots and striking wides, some almost painterly in their composition. The cumulative effect is much closer to the bold style of Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth” than to a more traditional “Masterpiece Theatre” production, although such choices can be distracting from the already dense plot. By the final half-hour, double crosses are coming at such a dizzying pace that it’s virtually impossible for the movie to sustain a coherent narrative rhythm, making the entire construct of royal succession feel absurd.
Though the ensemble is peppered with familiar faces — including David Tennant and Guy Pearce as expert manipulators, each working on a different queen — casting was done with a modern sense of colorblindness, making room for nonwhite actors such as Gemma Chan (“Crazy Rich Asians”) and Adrian Lester (who has played “Othello” onstage) to lend their talents to the mix. Also cutting edge is the inclusion of several homoerotic threads, most notably the portrayal of Mary’s inner-circle adviser Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) as an openly gay man allowed to mingle among her chambermaids — and later, to seduce her second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), with disastrous consequences for all.
From the opening scene, which forebodes Mary’s demise, audiences know where her fate is headed, though the other betrayals are played like the bloody reckonings of a “Game of Thrones”-style series, minus most of the character-building connective tissue that makes us care. The movie exculpates Mary from the worst of these while treating the hardening of Elizabeth — one that Robbie convincingly evolves from beautiful and eligible young queen to pox-scarred sovereign, governed by distrust and independence — as the true tragedy.